This is an excerpt from my as-yet untitled WIP / memoir. Any comments would be most welcome. I have thick skin. xoxo
Because I grew up the way I did, I was determined to create a loving, balanced, healthy and safe world for my children. Am I alone in that? Because I thought that way does it mean that my parents went into their worlds, and intentionally fractured, scared, and traumatized me? I don’t think they did. I don’t think anyone does that. But what my parents didn’t do is step back, look at the trajectory of their lives, their pasts and how those tendencies, habits and patterns would affect a child they parented. I’m sure my parents might’ve thought that they had it all figured out, “Sure, maybe we’re a little unbalanced, but we’re not UNSAFE, I mean, I’m not…” is something I can imagine each of them saying.
It goes beyond “trust” as in, “would you trust your child with that person?” because trust looks like a lot of different things to a lot of different people. In terms of my parents, I’d have to look at it like this: How long would my kid be with that person? What would be the context of my kid being with that person? Would it be one-on-one, no distractions, on land away from a car, outside, and away from alcohol, pills and rage? Ok, I’ll trust this for about an hour, max.
When I found out I was pregnant with my first child, I was delighted. I had just returned from a long weekend meeting my very first genetically related baby; my nephew. I remember holding him and saying to Dan, “I want one of these.” He nodded and we felt we were ready. We’d been a couple for seven years and married for three. We’d traveled, we’d exhausted a lot of baggage out of our systems and we had a dog. READY!
Genetically, I only considered alcoholism and addiction as major threats to my children’s health and happiness. I also considered the possibility of a genetic retinal disorder affecting my sons, but I felt the chances would be slim because I understood it to be carried by the mother, and I didn’t have the disease.
What I never considered; what never, ever entered my consciousness was the possibility that my sons would have mental health issues and that I would be tossed into the rodeo of depressive disorders, suicidal ideation, crippling anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder. Even though I knew it: my family, for generations back, had these traits. I spoke about it with my friends, therapists and other people — mostly as survivors of parental cruelty, narcissism, neglect, and aggression — but I naively never considered it as part of my being a parent. I wasn’t going to be cruel or neglectful or depressed. RIGHT?!
And so, decades into my marriage and into parenthood, the inklings grew into curiosities that developed into signs that evolved into disorders that bloomed into illnesses.
In 2019, we went to Ireland to visit our oldest son, the one I said I wanted before I knew I was bearing him. We walked around Galway, Dublin, the Aran Islands, Cliffs of Moher. On Good Friday as we walked Quay Street in Galway nearby our hotel, we passed a store called “Fields.” Its blinds were drawn, signifying that it was closed. A woman passed by and I asked her to take our photo because the letters were legible and it was our last name and because we were in a group, we were the plural of Field, as the store was named.
She gladly obliged. The weather was cold, we were in a seaside town (a very easy thing to accomplish in Ireland) and we crouched below the letters. We’re all hunched together to fit and to stay relatively warm. I loved that moment; the trip was food for the soul and my beautiful sons were doing well. Or so it seemed.
When I printed that photo several weeks later and put it in a frame, it dawned on me how we were all playing a part in that photo. We were all performing to crystallize a narrative. A narrative that we were healthy, well, and prospering. The truth had come out in the weeks since that photo and its printing. We were not at all all well. I was aware of my own baggage and pains but I didn’t consider that my kids were in their own bubbles. In a way, it was a type of narcissism; that they weren’t allowed to be sad, or down, or struggling because that would mean that I hadn’t created a fabulous world; it meant I was failing.
The truth is that we were struggling; we were creating our own version of pseudomutuality, our own version of a “pretty on the outside, crumbling on the inside”; and when I realized that, my heart broke. I felt that I had failed; that somehow, I’d injured them, that I had created a world for them that was not only unsympathetic and unsafe for their pain and suffering, but also that I was the cause of it. That in the world I’d worked so hard to shelter them from repeating the types of pains I endured, I had created an environment where my children could find no succor. It wasn’t that they weren’t allowed to have a mental illness, it was that I was going to take it all on — I would simply STOP IT from reaching them.
Again, though, it’s a fine line: is this their pain to fix or mine to be blamed for creating — narcissism is insidious as hell; before you know it, if you’re not careful you will be just as guilty of stealing their pain and making it all about you as well as stealing their joy… The reality is that I needed to allow them all their own spaces to be whatever they were going to be. My job, as a parent is to observe and help, not take over. If I take over, they can’t solve their own problems or learn to tie their own shoes. Buying them Velcro shoes or loafers all the time does not avoid the reality that tying a knot — just like getting help — is a life skill.
It’s always the mother, as many psychotherapists have said. Surely, I was not immune from infecting my children with my trauma. That sent me down a spiral that got me back on the couch for the fifth time and into a clear space where I have been able to write these words and share these stories. It has taught me about epigenetics, about how traumas are passed through the genes just as easily as height, blue eyes or the ability to sing, work on machines, or design buildings.
The idea of duality, that we can be one thing and another at the same time is simple, really. As a friend once said to me when she told me about her cancer diagnosis. I said, “Not you! You’re so wonderful and fabulous and dynamic!” She said, “Why not me? I am also flawed, jealous and controlling.” How can we be so blind to the other side of the coin? We must open our eyes and allow the truth: that we can be wonderful AND have depression; that we can be clever AND be a rape survivor; that we can be talented AND struggle with crippling self-doubt. Even more, we can be seemingly totally normal and come from generations of hard-scrabble, boot-strapping, persevering survivors of famine, of war, of genocide, of slavery and possibly not connect the dots that all that boot-strapping includes self-doubt, anxiety, fear, rage and dedication that is largely misunderstood or worse, taken for granted as just being “how she is.” We are more than the people on our birth certificates; we are ALL the people who came before us and the people who come after us will include us and our baggage as well.
I will not share my children’s’ stories; I feel I’ve already gone too far. I’ll bring you up to speed though, to let you know they are doing well; they are “adulting” the best they can and we are much more aware of each others’ needs for space, for time, for compassion and for a spontaneous hug.